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How can a ‘good’ nursery become ‘outstanding’ in the eyes of Ofsted?

What does a nursery provider need to do to achieve an 'outstanding' rating when that is only awarded to around 15 per cent of those on the early years register? Rachel Birks, Partner in the Regulatory team, has some pointers.

The proportion of nurseries and childminders judged ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ at their last inspection now stands at 95 per cent.

The importance of an ‘outstanding’ rating for a nursery cannot be understated; outstanding nurseries often have long waiting lists and find it easier to recruit good quality staff.

In order to achieve a good or outstanding rating, providers must first understand the criteria that will be used by Ofsted. In short, their considerations for awarding a rating will look at:

  • the effectiveness of leadership and management;
  • the quality of teaching, learning and assessment;
  • personal development, behaviour and welfare, and;
  • outcomes for children.

The key is to be rated good or outstanding across all four areas. One area of the four can be assessed as good and still lead to outstanding overall, but only if it is rapidly improving and moving towards outstanding.

The first step before you even begin working towards an outstanding rating is to make sure that you have complied with every regulatory requirement and, crucially, make sure that everyone who is employed by your nursery understands all of the regulatory requirements.

There is no point confining knowledge about ratios to your nursery manager and room leaders, if on the day of your Ofsted inspection, a junior staff member heads off for their lunch break, not realising that the work experience student they have left behind isn’t counted within the ratios.

A failure to comply with any aspect of the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage will make it highly unlikely that you will be rated as outstanding. Safeguarding needs to be effective and Ofsted will give close scrutiny to all aspects of this.

In order to achieve this, we suggest creating a culture where:

  • staff are not afraid to talk about issues, raise something they may have done wrong or suggest improvements. The only thing worse than a mistake is a mistake that has not been talked through and learned from, or a mistake that Ofsted identifies that nursery management haven’t;
  • best practice happens day in, day out, without exception. If you bend the rules from time to time there is a risk that someone will bend the rules when the Ofsted inspectors are there. In order to ensure that everyone who works within the setting is following all of your policies and procedures, carry out regular audits of your nursery documentation. This includes checking medication records to see if all medication has been administered in accordance with your policies; auditing children’s development records to make sure every child has had a progress check at the age of two; making sure risk assessments have been carried out when they should have been; and checking staff recruitment records to make sure that best practice has been followed when new staff have been recruited, to name just a few.

Audits allow you to identify where policies are not being followed so that you can rectify issues in advance of an inspection. They also focus everyone’s mind on whether they are doing all that their job requires them to do, and in accordance with your nursery’s policies.

However, it would be unwise to simply assume that by complying with the regulatory requirements you can be rated as outstanding. Compliance is a basic requirement and you will need to go beyond that baseline to be rated as anything more.

Those nurseries that are outstanding go that extra mile in the things that they do. They are innovative and stand out from the hundreds of other providers that an inspector will have inspected during the course of their career.

The next key point is to make everything you do meaningful. By way of example, don’t ask for feedback from parents and then ignore what they have to say. Take on board comments, make changes if necessary and then seek further feedback on what you have changed.

Don’t just hold staff meetings, give them a real purpose. Why not ask a different member of staff to lead on a discussion point each time you have a meeting?

When it comes to learning, inspectors will be looking for children to be given experiences that are rich, varied and imaginative. This means making sure that the activities that are provided are a mixture of adult-led activities and experiences where the children can lead their own play and explore their own ideas.

This can include, for example, allowing children to be independent in the things that they do, such as in choosing stories, setting the table for meals, pouring drinks, washing hands and tidying up.

Furthermore, teaching needs to be innovative and inspirational, which includes making sure that the staff you employ have the necessary skill set to plan and deliver such activities and, where they are lacking, providing them with the necessary training to be able to do so.

From a pastoral perspective, Ofsted will need to see that children are confident and secure and have formed strong emotional attachments. This means it is important to treat all children as individuals and adapt accordingly.

This includes appointing key workers for each child whilst making sure this system is effective. In other words, not appointing keyworkers who only work on one of the three days that their child/children are at nursery; making sure that key workers understand the individual needs of their children; planning suitable activities are planned; and ensuring that next steps are tailored to each individual child.

You also need to be able to demonstrate that all children who attend your setting are making good progress from their starting point. Ofsted will track the progress of at least two children throughout their inspection process, and you can only demonstrate progress if you have carried out a detailed assessment of their starting point when they join your setting and by continuously documenting how they are developing skills in the prime areas under your care.

Creating a pleasant and supportive working environment for your staff is also important. Show an interest in their welfare and development and make them feel valued, especially as you’ll want your employees to talk to the inspectors with confidence about the quality of the childcare that they provide and with pride about the things that the nursery excels at. You should also try to foster a culture which means that staff aren’t afraid of Ofsted inspections.

You also need to remember that Ofsted will speak with parents about their experience of the provision, which means you need to make sure that you engage with parents on a regular basis, keep them informed, deal with any concerns promptly and reassuringly, work in partnership in respect of their child’s learning and development; and create an environment for their child that they will enthuse about.

To be continually achieving and exceeding targets, you need to keep moving. You can do this through setting ambitious goals for improvement which are based on a thorough evaluation of the service you provide.

This will ensure that all of the staff are continually looking at how you can improve the childcare and teaching you offer, especially if you couple this with a system of effective self-evaluation for staff alongside regular observations, providing training and development opportunities where required.

Having a well-equipped, well-resourced team will also help you to reach your goals. Where possible, employ more staff than you need to comply with the ratio requirements so that you can free up room leaders so that they no longer form part of these ratios, and therefore have time to do things such as plan activities, carry out observations on staff, discuss children’s progress with parents and maintain documentation.

Having more staff than you need to means that you can cover staff sickness, holidays and training without having to resort to agency cover, which isn’t ideal in practice and is expensive in any event.

And finally, prepare for your Ofsted inspection. You know when you are likely to be due an inspection and so you should think about all of the things that you want to showcase about your nursery prior to this.

One easy way of doing so is to prepare a file of the highlights from the work that your nursery does, so that you can show it to the inspector and make sure that you don’t forget to mention anything.

Make sure that your staff are involved in this process by asking them to think in advance about what they are most proud of and what they think they do well.

To make doubly sure you are covering all bases, you might also want to consider carrying out a mock Ofsted inspection, including auditing samples of records in the same way that Ofsted will.

* For more information on the issues raised in this article, please contact Rachel Birks.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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